All reality TV is boring and only pretends to be spontaneous, but the worst reality TV shows are probably the presidential and vice-presidential debates. They are not really debates at all, and probably never will be, but here are ten ways to make them much more honest and useful to voters.
1. Get a competent moderator
A good moderator does not ask softball questions that the candidate has already been coached to answer, or a question that the candidate has already talked about ad nauseum. What good answer could possibly come from the question, “How are you qualified to be president?” For some candidates, there is probably a lie embedded in the very premise of the question itself.
A good moderator knows how to ask follow up questions, especially when the initial “answer” is unresponsive to the question or contradicts some obvious fact (“I never ever said that statement that I said on that damned video.”).
2. Get a moderator with some courage
A good moderator will call out a weaselly candidate who avoids the question in order to deliver a canned sound bite — and isn’t that every candidate to some extent? I urge this even though Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich recommend totally ignoring the question in order to deliver the desired message.
Yes, calling out a weasel would provoke complaints of partisanship, but even feckless moderators get accused of that by spin doctors when their candidate blunders on an answer. A good moderator would call out every candidate, since they all weasel their way out of uncomfortable questions. Calling out all candidates would neutralize the complaint, and besides, a good moderator is not afraid.
3. Get a moderator who is prepared
I don’t mean a one-week cram session with young media staff, I mean prepared by years of reading, listening, considering opposing opinions, and thinking.
To ask good questions, the moderator must actually know something about economics, foreign policy, etc., at least what should be known by reading serious news every day. A reasonable knowledge of American history and world events would help, too.
Mitch Jesserich would be an excellent moderator. He reads actual books, he has a fundamental knowledge of his interviewees’ subjects, and he prepares for each specific interview.
Donald Trump admitted to not preparing for his first debate, but — in his defense — was he really any less prepared than a moderator whose questions could be asked by someone who never follows politics but who bumps into a candidate at a diner photo op? “How are you qualified to be president?” “What would you do about unemployment?”
4. Have a digital time countdown shown screen
When the moderator gives a candidate two minutes to answer, the clock starts. However irritated we get with the canned talking points, we viewers can at least see that the end is coming. Digital time signs have greatly calmed automobile drivers stuck on long lights at busy and complicated intersections, and debate viewers surely need calming.
My preference e would be for the blatherer’s mic to go dead after exactly 120 seconds.
A compromise would allow an additional ten seconds or so, with some sound added, quickly increasing in volume, to encourage candidates to stop talking. Perhaps a sound track of some college graduation speech when graduating students start chanting “bor-ing, bor-ing.” Maybe that cackling laugh from Nelson on The Simpsons: “hah-hah, hah-hah.”
Given the increased vulgarity and profanity on network television, we should probably go straight to a series of voices, all chanting “bull-shit, bull-shit.” Let’s incentivize candidates to shut up.
5. Give the moderator a mic kill switch
If a candidate totally ignores the question, as the two 2016 VP hopefuls did at the start of their debate, let the moderator kill the candidate’s mic, keeping the clock running, and then say “You are avoiding the question, which was …”
6. Let each party compose five secret questions for the other party’s candidate
Let the moderator have them a few hours ahead of time. During that time, questions against the following rules would be eliminated. Others would be used in the debate, if the moderator found them likely to help voters.
No gotcha questions (“What countries are contiguous with Kazakstan?”)
No questions with bogus “facts” (“Did you support or oppose Obama’s creation of ISIS?”)
No questions with false or questionable premises (“Do you want your supporters to shoot liberals, or just rough them up?”)
No questions that are statements (“Why do you support more coal mining when it is the most environmentally destructive and disease-causing form of energy?”)
7. Have two third-party candidates on stage
This will help clarify the two main parties’ positions, even when (as in 2016, as usual) the two biggest third parties are poorly led. If nothing else, including third party candidates would remind us that the political world does not divide neatly into two, and it would make the debates more amusing.
8. Immediately after the debate, do not ask the official spin doctors or one focus group who won
That is what Twitter and AM rant shows are for.
9. Instead, ask a panel
Ask a panel of actual economists, foreign policy experts, historians, health care wonks, etc. Almost all of the issues that will be brought up are well known in advance, so networks will know what areas of expertise to seek.
A neutral or balanced panel would be ideal, but the most important criterion is that the panelists — unlike official campaign spokespeople — do not place party loyalty about the national interest.
10. The best potential improvement is long term and probably quixotic
To make the debates illuminating, clarifying, honest, and inspiring to new voters, we need better candidates, and a more thoughtful, better educated electorate. A utopian hope, yes, so let’s get to work on those first nine reforms.